The History of the Vallican Whole Community Centre

and The Whole School

 

This story is history, and many of the tensions and divisions described no longer exist, and relations between many in the Valley have improved immeasurably, often as a result of the completion of the building as well as RARTS' other community contributions.

 

The community contributions of the Rural Alternatives Research and Training Society (RARTS) are rich, full, and not always well-known, among them: developing the first Food Co-op in the area, fostering the Dumont Creek Burial Society and the Passmore Senior’s Housing project. But the first and most ongoing contribution is The Vallican Whole Community Centre.

 

In 1971, the first year of the Opportunities for Youth (OFY) jobs initiative of the Canadian Government, a group of young and older adults put together a grant application to “teach old and new rural skills so those moving from the cities can survive in their new surroundings” (editorial, Vancouver Sun, 1971). According to The (W)hole Story in The Arrow newspaper (March 1974), the OFY application stated this objective was to be met through constructing “ ‘a building under the supervision of a master carpenter, building instructor, providing summer jobs for young people. The building to be for community use as the focus for the long term Slocan Valley project for the Rural Alternatives Research and Training Centre’ ─ The Centre for Rural Alternatives.” Eric Clough designed the original community centre building.

 

The Rural Alternatives Research and Training Society was incorporated to own the 10+ acres of land received in a deal with Michael Kaplan, who asked only $5000 to be paid $200/year for as long as it took to pay off. He subsequently went off to medical school, and we were able to pay him out and burn the mortgage earlier than required.

 

The building was not finished that summer of 1971, due to many factors, the largest of which was the fact that, in its initial year, OFY allowed no money for materials, only money for wages (this oversight in the program was corrected in subsequent years). So a great deal of money was spent digging and pouring by hand a 44’ square foundation. We are thankful to those original workers, among them David Orcutt, Helen Davis, Blake Parker, Saul Perks and many others, none of whom had any ideas about an alternative school using the building.

 

That fall and during the next years, those rural skills were honed as people built their homes, brought in firewood, fixed their cars, buried their water lines, and tried to find their places in the rural economy. More, creative and frequently highly educated people continued to move to the Slocan Valley over those years, seeking alternative lifestyles to those afforded to them in cities. But the fact that the building had not been completed that first summer increased the rifts in the Valley between older and new residents. The Vallican “Hole” was a site of contention.

 

When people’s homes burnt down and we wanted to have a benefit dance to raise money to help them rebuild, we were not welcome, in those early days, to use the Winlaw Hall, and though we used the Passmore Hall, it was very small for the needs of this community. A group of folks were square dancing, with Eric Lees and myself calling and the Broken String Band playing their wonderful music; Brain Damage, Sunshine Express and WhiteWater brought out huge crowds to dance. A larger community centre was clearly needed.

 

Completely separately from the Rural Alternatives initiatives, in the summer of 1972, I got together with Joel Harris who had been talking with families about alternative education. Young “hippie” children were encountering rough experiences in the local public schools, and many parents were also concerned about the limits of that curriculum. Six weeks later, we opened the Slocan Valley Free School, thanks to the opportunity to house it at Morton’s farm in Passmore, where my friend Fred Eisen and I heated and held the living home of the school, and I taught English and Ecology among other subjects. It was a rich and heady time, with strong community involvement. Parents and other community members shared their skills with the children in mini and longer courses. We had 35 students and 17 teachers, and incorporated the West Kootenay Educational Resource Society (WKERS). Over the next couple of years, the school moved around to different homes. In fall and spring this was fine, but 35-45 students running through houses in the winter was getting to be too much for even the most welcoming hosts.

 

The differing needs of the two societies came together, and fundraising began for the community centre that could also be used as a school. The new building, designed by Al Luthmers for 4 cords of firewood, had a 1500 square foot dance floor that might be turned into study areas using moveable cabinets. The Arrow article describes the workshops we used to create the model that enabled many neophytes to learn the steps of construction. Men and women, skilled and unskilled, community members and visitors came together to work on both the model, and ultimately the building itself. Some were parents, some were children, and many were not: Just people who had a vision of what it could mean to the community to have a place of our own to make our visions of alternative living in rural British Columbia come true.

 

Through it all, we remained two separate societies. I say we, as I was a co-founder of the school, a RARTS board member for 29 years and simultaneously on the WKERS board for several years. (I am not currently on the Board of either organization). For many years there was good overlap and good communication among the Board of Coordinators of RARTS and the Board members of WKERS. But we knew that the mandate and needs of the school were different from the mandate and needs of the community centre and the Rural Alternatives Society, and occasionally were in conflict. It was always important to keep them separate.

 

RARTS named the building the Vallican Whole Community Centre in 1974 as work began in earnest, with great hopes of ameliorating the negative larger community feelings related to the unfinished basement. The school moved into the building as a tenant in1976, and re-named itself the Whole School. The school has always paid rent. RARTS has always been responsible for constructing, repairing and maintaining the building. For some elements, which the school used more than the needs of the community centre, some financial considerations were negotiated, and the school contributed to these specific items. But the responsibility for ongoing work on the building has always been RARTS’. This has included 3 new floors and many resurfacings, replacement of single pane windows with new beautifully framed double-paned ones, a new roof, basement renovations, wheelchair access, and a new kitchen among many other additions that make our building a sought-after venue for community arts, music and educational events, as well as weddings and memorial services. Over 600 people have worked on the building over the past 37 years, most as volunteers. I have been taking slides since 1974 for the Vallican Whole Slide Show which highlights most of them. We show it now and then to remind ourselves and our community what we have accomplished.

 

The school has had many ups and downs. The energy levels for the school fluctuate, sometimes ending in a significant drop in registrations and parental energy contributions. It did close its doors completely at one time. A community school that depends, for its success, upon parental involvement along with its teachers and administrators can go through challenges when parents move, or children complete the grade levels available, or go into the public system. The public system in the Slocan Valley has improved immeasurably since the early 1970’s, some say partly as a result of the example the alternative school provided. The public system has also become a more welcoming place for children of diverse backgrounds and fine and performing arts are a greater part of the curriculum.

 

The West Kootenay Educational Resource Society has had as its focus the Whole School, not the community centre or community programming. The school’s need to spread out and put up the work of the students has grown in the past few years. The negotiated requirement for the school to pack up into their moveable cabinets once, and for some special events twice, a month has been seen as somewhat onerous. There have been tensions.  It is clear that the needs of the school for a permanent stable setting where there is no need to regularly pack up the space are at odds with the growing need of other community members to use the building for the development and implementation of other “Rural Alternatives.”

 

It is a sad thing, yes. But the tenant has outgrown the space and needs to find a new one that better serves its requirements. Perhaps sharing Winlaw School as an alternative within the public system could be considered, this might be a solution as well for Winlaw's reduced enrollment due to demographics. The Vallican Whole Community Centre needs to be able to respond more effectively to the larger community’s needs for growth and innovation.

 

Dr. Marcia Braundy, construction carpenter and educator